Who Owes Whom?

The story of debt in Africa is not pretty. In the late 1960s in many countries, undemocratic governments began borrowing large amounts of money from governments, multilateral institutions, and banks. Much of this money went into boondoggles that benefited transnational corporations or massaged the egos of dictators, some of it went into private bank accounts, and small amounts of it went into real projects that benefited Africans.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when interest rates rose and export commodity prices were low, country after country experienced difficulties in repaying debt. At this stage, creditors invariably sent in the International Monetary Fund to press countries to shift policies toward exports, toward privatization, toward selling off essential services to the highest multinational corporate bidder—all with the goal of getting the loans repaid. The poor and the environment paid a heavy price.

By the late 1990s, under pressure from Jubilee groups in the South and North, governments at G8 meetings and elsewhere devised a debt relief program; however, it was laden with onerous conditions, and brought little meaningful debt cancellation to the African world.

Today, perhaps the most exciting campaigns are emanating from Jubilee South with their calls for debt repudiation and reparations. Campaigners in Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and elsewhere are demanding their governments stop payments and repudiate the debt.

Campaigners have raised the critical question: Who owes whom? The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development notes that between 1970 and 2002, sub-Saharan Africa received $294 billion in disbursements, paid out $268 billion in debt service, and yet remained saddled with a debt stock of some $210 billion. In fact, African nations are still paying more in debt service to the United States and other creditors than they receive in investment, aid, or new loans. Student and youth communities within Jubilee are also pushing beyond debt relief, calling instead for reparations for more than 400 years of exploitation of the African continent.

This year is also Jubilee's Sabbath year, a biblically based year for the clearing of all debts. There couldn't be a better time to build on the successes of the Jubilee movement—to restore the dignity of Africa's people, end the cycle of debt, and secure reparations for centuries of exploitation.

Emira Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is from Liberia. This article is adapted from her May testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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